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Interdisciplinary research not working

ANU media release, 3 April 2012

A major new report shines a light on the flaws in the nation’s interdisciplinary research efforts.

Report author Professor Gabriele Bammer, Director of the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, said the real challenges of interdisciplinary research are not recognised and measures to address the problems are ineffectual.

Professor Bammer said that even though the value of bringing together insights from multiple disciplines and practitioners is accepted, the measures needed to really embed interdisciplinary research in the academic mainstream are not.

“There are two essential problems. First, interdisciplinary research is treated as if it is one entity, when in fact there are very different types of interdisciplinary studies. Second, the methods are never adequately documented,” Professor Bammer said.

“The support needed is very different for a single researcher who is trying to work across two or three disciplines compared to a big diverse team which engages with stakeholders and end-users. Yet we keep looking for magic bullets that will work for all types of investigations.

“And then there are no standard agreed ways to report on different kinds of interdisciplinary research, which means it is hard to figure out exactly what was done and what methods were used. That impedes learning which can improve investigations in the future.”

Professor Bammer said that her report proposes three bold initiatives. “One is to develop a classification to distinguish the major kinds of interdisciplinary research. This will allow us to gain a better understanding of what research is being conducted,” she said.

“Second is to develop an agreed framework for reporting on interdisciplinary research, which identifies the key elements for different kinds of studies. Third is to document the different methods and processes used and to make them available as toolkits of options.

“Until we do all of these things, we cannot assess the quality of research being conducted or be sure about the best way to educate the next generations of researchers.

“We may not be able to address all of these issues at once, but we should at least be aware of what needs to be done, so that we are heading in the right direction. There is a role not only for researchers and research organisations, but also for government policy makers and the full range of funders, including business and philanthropies.”

The research was commissioned by the Australian Council of Leaned Academies, which comprises the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Professor Bammer is also a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Program Leader on Integration and Implementation in the ARC’s Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security.

The report is available at www.acola.org.au, or email mail@acolasecretariat.org.au for a copy.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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